William L. Downing shown fishing in 2010 on Trout Lake, in the Wabana Chain of Lakes, Itasca County, Minnesota

William Lawrence Downing



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William Downing, World War II hero, scientist, professor, environmental commissioner, author, and lover and protector of lakes and natural ecosystems.(Minneapolis Star & Tribune Obituary) (news obit in Star Tribune)

Memorial Service: 3 pm, August 29, 2015 at Unity Church, 733 Portland Avenue, St. Paul, MN.

Memorials: Contributions to the William L. Downing Memorial Fund to be used to create a memorial to Bill and Betsy Downing on Government Point, Wabana Lake, MN, and for forest and fish-habitat management on his family's property on Wabana Lake; or, tax-deductible contributions in his name to Planned Parenthood or the Nature Conservancy (specify William L. Downing, 1834 Simpson, Falcon Heights, MN 55113; notify wldmemorial@gmail.com).

From the Introduction to his forthcoming book (in his own words)

My name is William L. Downing (nick-named Willy or Bill). I was born in October of 1921, the son of Dr. James Arthur Downing and Gertrude Herrmann Downing of Des Moines, Iowa.

Here I am in 1943 on the tower my brothers and I built at Tower Hill on Wabana Lake, Minnesota

My father was an eye, ear, nose, and throat doctor who was an army doctor in Europe during World War I. My father’s orderly during the War lived in the lakes area of northern Minnesota and convinced dad to buy lakeshore on Wabana Lake. Our family built log houses out of old saw logs left after logging in this region – pre-air-conditioning Iowa was hot and sticky in summer so we spent much of the summer at our home called “Tower Hill” on Wabana Lake from the early 1930s.

My mother and father at our home on Wabana Lake in 1943

My mother Gertrude was the daughter of a German immigrant glover in Des Moines. Her father was very successful and specialized in fine, white, lambskin ladies’ gloves. He died suddenly of a heart attack in 1910 when mother was 22 years old. In 1924, her mother, Adellma, remarried the much-younger Ernest Ashley, a printer and linotype operator for some of the famous magazines published in Des Moines. Perhaps because Ernest was not really my grandfather, I always referred to them as “Domper” (Ernest) and “Dommer” (Adellma).

Domper and Dommer in 1943; I am raising the flag in the background

I was the youngest of three boys. My oldest brother, Arthur Herrmann (Herrmy) (born 1914) attended medical school and became an army doctor at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, during World War II and married the niece of the post’s commanding officer. My brother closest to my age was James Hillis (Hilli or Hillis) (born 1916). Hillis’s health was quite poor – spending time outdoors brought him to an interest in farming. He and his wife Eleanor had a farm in the hilly river valley country north of Des Moines.

My brothers, Hillis and Herrmann, taken at Hillis’s farm in 1943

I attended school at Perkins elementary in Des Moines and graduated from Roosevelt High School in January of 1940. I attended Drake University and the University of Iowa each for four semesters in an accelerated university program because of the impending war, and graduated from the University of Iowa with a BS in Zoology at the end of the summer of 1943.

Father and son reading the war news together in 1943

During the summers of my youth on Lake Wabana, I spent time socializing with the other young people across the lake who spent summers at “Arrowhead Point”. Arrowhead Point was a colony of homes created by Thomas Harvey Simmons, a Harvard-educated attorney and land speculator. One of my closest friends on the lake was Mary Elizabeth Meader (Betsy), granddaughter of Mr. Simmons and the daughter of Deborah Simmons Meader and Amos Kingsley Meader. Betsy and I had been friends since we were 9 and 10 years old.

Betsy in front of her summer home when she was 14 years old

Although the Simmons and Kingsley families had close ties with Iowa, mainly Cedar Rapids, Betsy had grown up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and was living in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania during the years surrounding World War II. Betsy attended the University of Minnesota for two years but graduated from Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University). Betsy and I were friends at the beginning of the war, so I wrote to her frequently.

Betsy in a colorized portrait I carried with me to WW II

From press reports about his 2012 WWII Freedom-Flight to Washington DC

In 1941, he completed his Bachelor’s degree at Drake University on an accelerated program so he could enlist in US Navy officers’ training after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He was trained in Chicago and California, with special skills in shore-fire control (coordinating naval fire from aerial spotters). William was a Lieutenant JG and served in both the European and Pacific theaters of World War II.

Because of his ability with languages and his early study of French when he was a student at Roosevelt high school in Des Moines, IA, Bill was seconded from the US Navy to the Free French Navy, serving aboard the Admiral’s flagship, the Georges Leygues. He may have signaled the first naval shot fired on Normandy during the D-day invasion. General Eisenhower gave Admiral Jaujard of the Free French Navy, ranking officer outside of occupied France, the honor of opening fire on France to liberate his homeland. Admiral Jaujard, transmitted the order to fire to William Downing, and he called “feu” to the French gunners. He continued to be the liaison between British pilots and French gunners throughout the early days of the invasion – without sleep or relief.

Shortly after Normandy was secured, Bill was transferred to Saipan in the Pacific to command a squad of Marines. He was sent to replace an officer who was killed in one of the most costly battles of the Pacific theater. He remembers his squad of Marines as, “…one of the bravest groups of men I have ever met…” Although he was convinced he would not live through the war, having lost so many close friends and classmates, he decided to ask his childhood best friend, Betsy Meader, to marry him after the war. It was while he was traveling across the US, after D-Day and before Saipan, that he proposed to her on the telephone. He was being re-deployed so rapidly that he had to hand the engagement ring through the window of a train to another close friend, Warren Rose, to take to Betsy. He spent nearly a year on Saipan assisting in the mop-up operations.

In 1945, at age 24, after the surrender of Japan, Bill was in charge of a landing craft to land at Nagasaki as part of the first post-atomic bomb American presence. The flotilla was recalled but a radio failure in Bill’s amphibious craft meant that he landed before the rest of the Navy party. His first assignment in Japan was to set up a hotel for transient allied officers in the former German consulate. Later, he was transferred to the city of Sasebo where he worked as a supply officer supporting the reconstruction of the region. He remembers the people of Japan with great warmth and respect for their resilience and grace under the defeat and destruction they suffered.

After the war, Dr. Downing completed his PhD in Zoology at the University of Iowa and then became professor and Chair of Biology at Jamestown College, a liberal arts college in North Dakota. He resigned his post at that school, along with most of his colleagues, in protest over the unjust treatment of another professor. He moved to Minnesota where he spent the rest of his career as a valued professor of Biology, Chair of his department, director of the pre-med and pre-nursing programs, and then beloved emeritus professor at Hamline University. He has been active in community activities, especially concerning soil and water conservation and the protection of water quality. He and his family maintain a conservation area and managed forest near Grand Rapids, Minnesota, protecting nearly a mile of unique and valuable fish spawning grounds, and conserving 60 acres of pristine wildlife habitat.

William Downing is a hero who never questioned whether his country and world justice were worth his life. He never expected to return from the war and says, “I felt confused at the end of it because I was still alive”. He was grateful that his life was spared, however. He dedicated his life after the war to educating scientists and medical practitioners. He and Betsy raised three children who are successful in business and science. Betsy and Bill were happily married, living in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, until Betsy’s death in 2004. At 91 years, Bill is still active, articulate, and good-natured, living in the house he and Betsy shared for nearly 50 years.

William L. (Bill) Downing 2/14/2011

1921 October 2: Born, Des Moines, Iowa, son of Dr. James Arthur Downing and Gertrude Herrmann Downing. Third son, brothers Arthur H., age 8, and and J. Hillis, age 5. Post-WWI.

1917-1920.(before I was born). Father  was a doctor  in France in World War 1. Mother Gertrude Herrmann Downing and her mother.  Adellma Burt (“Dommer”) Herrmann. took 2 brothers to  Long Beach, CA. Postwar, Dad brought household back to Des Moines. .

1921-1926. Nellie Brown, English, Loving household maid and nurse. In 1926, Dommer married Ernest Osmond Ashley, dubbed “Domper” by me. Great all-around relief. My only known grandfather, much loved.

My true grandfather, Dommer’s first husband, was Ludwig Georg Herrmann, immigrant Bavarian master glover, died age 60 in 1910. My paternal grandfather was Arthur Caleb Downing, Church of Christ minister, founding minister of several churches in the northwest, e.g., Kalispell, Spokane. Died about 1912. Paternal grandmother, Nora Haner Downing, also was minister, a real firebrand. Died 1935.

1928 near death with mastoiditis and pneumonia, long recovery. Mother took me and brother Hillis to Long Beach CA for the winter. School. Dad and Art drove out there in our 8-passenger Willys-Knight, and in June we all drove back to Iowa over gravel roads and through many states. Quite clear memories, lots of movies!

1926-1930 Perkins Grade School, great memories of excellent teachers, interesting subjects. Took French from Madame Berthe Sawyer, got a good Canadian accent.  Useful in later life. John W. Studebaker was Supt, later first U. S Secretary of Education.

1930-1933 Junior High at Theodore Roosevelt High School, then 1934-1940, Senior High School in the same building. Excellent education, Special Experimental Curriculum student.

1931. First summer on Wabana Lake in northern Minnesota, a fixation I’ve had the rest of my life. Three boys, building a large log complex of buildings with Domper’s help with Mr. Tervo, the Finnish caretaker.  Built a 40-foot cedar tower in 1933, thus the name “Tower Hill”. Lived there every summer with Dommer and Domper until I went into the Navy in 1943.

1933 Met Betsy Meader, who lived across Wabana, and we became great friends , playing with all the kids on the lake and having fun.

`January 1940 Started Drake University in midyear, February 1940 Graduated from High School. All colleges ran 3 full semesters a year, so transferred to the University of Iowa as a Junior in June 1941.

1941.Signed up for the Navy V-7 program, which meant that when I received my Bachelor’s Degree I would attend Midshipman’s School and become an Ensign on completion.

1943 Graduated from Iowa in August, went to Tower Hall Midshipman’s School in September, became an Officer and Gentleman in December 1943, Christmas leave in Des Moines, reported to Camp Bradford, Virginia on January 1, 1944.

Trained as a Naval Gunfire Liaison Officer, to lead a trained group of trained Army or Marines ashore during an assault landing, to be Forward Observers and direct Naval guns against shore targets, using Naval guns as Artillery would otherwise be used.

1944 April, Group of NGLOs sent to Plymouth, United Kingdom, went among O-class British Destroyers (e.g. Obedient) to set up their radios, for shore-based pbservers and show them how to crank height into their target calculations.

1944 May, Was ordered aboard  the French Cruiser Georges Leygues as U. S. Liaison, then  I set them up to fire against shore targets. They proved to be masterful!

4:00 A. M. June 6, 1944. General Eisenhower asked Admiral Jeaujard, on our ship, to give the signal to begin firing against Normandy. The Admiral called me, and I gave the order to the Fire Direction Center to open fire, the first volley of the invasion.

For the next 10 days I spent day and night in the Fire Direction Center, on iron decks, with ground spot radio in my right ear and air spot in the other. 
1944 June our ship was released from station-keeping off Normandy, and we went back to Milford Haven, Wales to begin resupplying ammo, food and wine. I went part time to the field hospital set up for wounded from the beaches but none arrived yet, to help me become oriented after my long stint ordering firing.

Wrote orders for the Captain to sign, ordering me back to Plymouth. Ready for some R and R, but instead  orders for all of us (maybe 25) to report to the Queen Mary in Scotland and go to New York.  Couldn’t fathom what was the hurry. Later found we were to replace NGLOs who had been killed during the awful invasion of Saipan.

Thirty days leave after New York, some spent with Betsy Meader who was working in Hartford, CT. Back to Des Moines, decided I wanted to spend my life with Betsy, proposed over the phone on my next-last day of Leave, was accepted, then train to San Diego.

1944, more training school, became engaged to Betsy by long distance, then to Pearl Harbor, HI, for still more training, then flown by PB4Y flying boat across the Pacific to Saipan. Arrived Christmas Day.

1945 attached as NGLO to 5th Marine Regiment, 2nd   and a group of 22 Marines, most of whom had been in the Invasion of the island, needed some coddling.

Most of 1945 on Saipan, kept busy in the heat, a trip back to Pearl Harbor for some brief training, and back to Saipan.

Packed aboard a troopship and sent as backup troops to Okinawa, where we floated around ripe for some kamikaze fly-boy, but not hit very much.  Memory remains blocked on Okinawa.

Back to Saipan, same old tents, then back to Pearl Harbor for more training, and the end of the war came while I was there. Was sure I would then be sent back to the US. Wrong. Back to Saipan.

Listened avidly to radio reports of peace talks being conducted. Then back to a troop ship. Then steaming to Japan. We sat like sitting ducks outside the harbor of Nagasaki, Kyushu, waiting for the peace to be finalized. Then into assault LCVPs , landed after some actions somewhat outside of orders. Our battalion was ordered to occupy a bombed warehouse in Nagasaki, drenched when a  typhoon hit, finally moved elsewhere.

Lived in various quarters around Nagasaki, drove through bombed city often , did some work for the Marines. It took three months in Nagasaki before somebody noticed it was extremely radioactive.
,Then moved  overnight to Sasebo where I was put in charge of the Senior Officers Quarters Finally got orders to return to the US. Took a plane, then a ship, landed in San Francisco, then to Des Moines for clothes that were not uniform   To Great Lakes to become detached, and to do the discharge paper work.

1946 June, married in Pittsburgh to Betsy, at last.

1946-1948 Worked on Master’s Degree, at the University of Iowa, and 1948-1951 Worked on Ph D.  I aimed my study toward cells—protozoa and  
botanical, anmal—in freshwater. Lakes of greatest interest.  Degree granted in June 1951.

1947 Daughter Deborah, 1951 Son John, 1954 daughter Elizabeth.

1951-1963 Chaired Biology Department at Jamestown College in Jamestown, ND. Honed my teaching skills.

1963 went as Chair of Biology and Pre-medical Advisor to Hamline University, St. Paul.

1973  Elected  to Ramsey Soil and Water Conservation District, a founder of the District, re-elected twice, Served 20 years. Did not run again.
Appointed to the Metropolitan Waste Control Commission by Gov. Quie, served until the Metropolitan Council took over its duties.
Served on several water quality advisory committees of the Metropolitan Council.
Served 15 years on the Citizens Advisory Committee of the Capitol Region Watershed District, resigned in 2010 

1980s Taught courses in general biology, microbiology, anatomy, genetics, ecology, and several others. Was pre-medical and pre-nursing advisor. Trained nearly two generations of medical and health personnel. Began line of field research in age and growth in freshwater mussels.

1990 Retired at age 69 , granted Emeritus status at Hamline University.

1993 Published “Molluscan shell growth and loss” in prestigious journal Nature, and several other related papers.

1990-2006 Enjoyed long retirement with Betsy Downing, traveling and spending time with our children, grandchildren, many relatives. We especially enjoyed many months each year at Wabana Lake.

2006 lost my dear wife of 60 years after her debilitating illness.

2006-2007 Spent substantial time in the hospital and transitional care due to an infection in my legs – kidneys were weakened by protracted medication with an antibiotic to which I had an unrecognized allergy.

2007-2008 Lived much of the winter months in Palma de Mallorca, Spain.

2014 Fell ill in early January after spending New Year’s Eve with the family at Wabana (first time, ever).

Note added by son John in 2015: Bill went to the hospital originally for an infection in his legs but his kidneys were weakened further by another antibiotic. The infection spread to his prosthetic hip which was replaced three-time within a single month (April 2014) due to medical misadventures. He worked very hard to recover through extensive physiotherapy and was able to get back to his summer Solstice Party at Wabana in June 2015. A pain medication weakened his kidneys to near zero function, nearly stopping his heart. He began dialysis to finish some projects of importance to him, including his book on World War II. Dialysis led to massive infection from which he was unable to recover. He died peacefully in the early morning of July 21, 2015.

Our family has owned this land since 1906.

We believe that families have a role to play in conservation.